Are Bowings Really So Bad?

Via the twittersphere:

@fEARnoMUSIC: Hey composers! Please don’t put bowings in unless you have played the instrument you are bowing for for at least 30 years. Thx! Mwah! Luv u!

@ElissaMilne: Really?! (re no bowings!) I’m assuming you mean up/down indications, not all slurring?!!

@harryfiddler: Articulation, yes. Bowings, no. Unless you want a particular effect, in which case you get a string player to help you.

@harryfiddler: I guess it’s like fingering on a piano? You wouldn’t presume to dictate fingering, although you do indicate articulation.

@fEARnoMUSIC: Yes, I’m talking about up/down bow indications. Let us figure out our own bowings based on your articulation/dynamic markings.

So, is it really so bad for composers to mark bowings?

I can understand that string players will undoubtedly have more familiarity with what is comfortable or familiar than non-string-playing composers. Surely, putting bowings in scores just for the sake of thoroughness (or whatever else) without caring much about any particular outcome is overkill.

However, I’m intrigued by @harryfiddler‘s comparison to fingerings on a piano. Is it true that one “wouldn’t presume to dictate fingering”? Schenker’s Art of Performance describes a variety of ways in which performance issues can relay interpretive information and may therefore may facilitate a more accurate conveyance of a composer’s intent (supposing an appropriate interpretation). Schenker’s editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas are not merely clean copies; they are interpretations. Fingerings matter because they can facilitate the portrayal of grouping and signaling information to audience members (as my Keyboard Harmony students are [hopefully] well aware).

Are not bowings akin to fingerings in this sense? The selection of bowings is an interpretation of sorts. If a composer puts in bowing markings that seem unnatural to a string player, could it sometimes be that the string player simply does not understand the music the way it was intended? I have no doubt that unnatural bowings may actually hinder an accurate portrayal, despite the intentions of the composer. And yet, is it so awful for string players that they do not wish to even try the bowings suggested by a composer “unless you have played the instrument you are bowing for for at least 30 years”?

1 Reader Comment

  1. Emily Williams

    As a general rule I’m going to have to agree with @harryfiddler. While not all composer’s bowings are bad, and can be helpful in determining what is wanted by the composer as far as an interpretation, in general they are a detriment to string players and waste the players time having to scratch out bad bowings and write in new ones. Composers don’t finger parts either, unless they play the instrument and know what they are doing. You can’t finger a part for a string player just as much as you can’t bow it if you aren’t a string player. Plus, it is the performer’s job to interpret the music. The composer can indicate articulation and give a general idea of what they want, but in the end this is the performer’s decision. If a composer wants a certain thing done they are better off indicating it with articulation markings and leaving it at that, because if they get the bowing wrong it creates more confusion than clarification for the string player. General slurring is fine, that helps us know your thoughts, but even that needs to be done with a grain of salt. Don’t try to figure out which bow direction we are going to be going and slur according to that. Most likely we’re going to change something to make it come out differently anyway. Write the articulation you want and we’ll take it from there. There’s nothing a string player hates more than bad bowings from a composer who has no idea how their instrument works. Getting help from a string player is definately a good idea. Even if you as a composer have to PAY a string player to put good bowings in your part. Do it, it’s worth it! We’re probably going to change them a little to suit our own taste, but at least they will make sense to a certain degree.

    Take heart composers. We don’t expect you to know how to bow our parts and definatley appreciate when you respect the art of string players enough to ask for help with such a task!

Leave a Comment